It takes a special kind of talent to bring together 16 of the finest singers from the world of progressive and power metal whilst staking your own reputation on a show that will highlight the best of a 23-year career as one of the leading lights of the progressive music world. And on top of all that, you know you will also have to overcome your own crippling stage fright. But Arjen Lucassen is a special kind of talent.
The daunting task of co-ordinating 16 singers -- all with their own bands and busy schedules -- is just the beginning. There's also Lucassen's live band; the core line-up of Ed Warby (drums), Johan van Stratum (bass), Marcel Coenen and Ferry Duijsens (guitars) and Joost van den Broek (keyboards) augmented by a violinist, flautist and cellist. To top it off there's a stage set up that boasts one of the world's biggest HD screens spanning the entire width of the 013 stage. It's a spectacular backdrop for a set that comprises of 28 songs over two hours, filmed by 30 cameras in front of 9000 fans who have flocked in from all over the world. Little wonder the three shows in Tilburg sold out within a day.
It's hardly a surprise that someone with Lucassen's vision and sense of adventure managed to pull off a spectacle such as Ayreon Universe with apparent ease. Since 1995, when he released 'Ayreon: The Final Experiment', Lucassen's imagination and ambition have flourished unfettered by convention.
Like many people of his era, it was hearing The Beatles and Pink Floyd that sparked Lucassen's youthful musical imagination. And in turn it was hearing Ritchie Blackmore's incendiary performance on Deep Purple's 'Made In Japan' album that made him want to pick up the guitar. From then, there were several early musical forays before his first big break came in 1980 when he joined Dutch metal band Bodine. Four years later he was poached by fellow metallers Vengeance, where he stayed for eight years and four studio albums, before deciding to try things his own way.
It was the Ayreon albums, centered around a conceptual theme from their creator's vast imagination, that began to attract the attention of a burgeoning audience interested in new progressive sounds. For 1998's 'Into The Electric Castle', Lucassen began what is now his standard MO of working with an array of popular artists from the prog and metal worlds, namely Fish, Anneke van Giersbergen, Sharon den Adel, Edward Reekers, Damian Wilson, Thijs van Leer, Ton Scherpenzeel and Clive Nolan. This was the masterstroke that would bring his musical vision the wider acclaim he so clearly sought.
"Writing and producing", he says, "is what I love doing, coming up with the stories and putting it all together."
Since then, Lucassen has hardly looked back. The two part 'Universal Migrator' albums, released in 2000, saw the likes of Bruce Dickinson, Floor Jansen, Russell Allen and Neal Morse join the ever-impressive list of musicians featured on Ayreon albums. Later on he would add such luminaries as Mikael Akerfeldt, Devin Townsend, Steve Hackett, Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman on albums like 'The Human Equation' (2004), '01011001' (2008) and 'The Theory Of Everything' (2012).
Not even the impressive scope of Ayreon's rock dramatics was enough to contain Lucassen's irrepressible spirit. He launched the more reflective, Celtic flavoured Ambeon project with the album 'Fate Of A Dreamer' in 2001. The prog metal meets space rock of Star One saw the light of day in 2002 with 'Space Metal'. His next side project was putting together Stream Of Passion, who released 'Embrace The Storm' in 2005. In 2009 Lucassen's Guilt Machine released their sole album, 'On This Perfect Day.' He even found time in 2012 to release a second solo album, 'Lost In The New Real', and his Gentle Storm project with Anneke van Giersbergen released 'The Diary' in 2015.
But it is Ayreon that has raised Lucassen to the greatest heights of his career so far. 2017's 'The Source' was another star-studded conceptual affair, this time boasting Dream Theater's James LaBrie, Marillion's Mark Kelly and Epica's Simone Simons. Yet despite being one of prog and metal's most prolific writers and performers, there is one area where Lucassen does not feel at ease: on stage, in front of an audience.
"I get absolutely crippling stage fright," he explains. "Up to the night before the Tilburg shows I was having dreadful panic attacks. I honestly didn't know if I was going to make it on stage."
When the album 'The Human Equation' was brought to the stage as a theater production with many of its original vocalists in 2015, Lucassen did make a brief appearance at the end of each show. This let him experience first-hand the wildly enthusiastic response of the fans. Seeing the "sea of happy faces," as he describes it was the main driver that pushed him to undertake Ayreon Universe.
"We worked on Ayreon Universe for two years," he says of the event. "We basically started planning right after 'The Theater Equation' was done. There were literally hundreds of things that had to fall into place to make the shows a success."
And, as you will see from 'Ayreon Universe: The Best Of Ayreon Live', it turned out pretty special indeed. A crowning achievement, to date, for Lucassen's remarkable career.
"I just love recording my various projects in the studio," he states. "To me, it's another way of performing. But I'm not a live performer. I'm the guy who comes up with the ideas, sees the big picture, and puts it all together. So I'm glad that so many incredible musicians helped me bring my music to the stage."